The climate activists stealing Big Oil’s playbook

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A secretive network of public relations experts has spent the better part of the last decade whispering into journalists’ ears about climate science — spoon-feeding them facts, figures, spin and quotes.

Few of the reporters they interact with know who backs them; until recently their one-page website didn’t bother listing funders or staff. And yet they seem to have a line into everyone, from obscure academics to big-name politicians.

If this sounds like yet another Big Oil manipulation of the climate conversation, that’s because the network deploys many of the same tactics, only on the other side of the debate.

Until they were contacted by POLITICO in preparation for this article, the Global Strategic Communications Council operated in semi-secret — “unbranded,” as they put it — to push a unified message from a diverse group of sources: Climate change is real, it’s caused by humans, and something needs to be done about it immediately.

The network of around 100 public relations pros in more than 20 countries has planned press conferences for the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, trained media-shy climate forecasters to speak in soundbites, and collected and distributed scuttlebutt from closed-door climate negotiations, including in the ongoing COP26 climate talks in Glasgow.

Following the queries from POLITICO, the network’s leadership is opening up about their tactics and funders. It’s a reflection, they say, of a victory of sorts: The science of man-made climate change is no longer up for debate in serious circles and once-powerful climate skeptics are now on the defensive.

The “slightly knee-jerk” impulses to shield their identity are “responses to a politics which doesn’t exist anymore,” said Tom Brookes, in his first on-record interview as CEO of the network. Up until now, he’s identified himself as the director of strategic communications at the European Climate Foundation.

The dark arts of fossil fuel companies’ PR efforts — as described in the 2010 exposé “Merchants of Doubt” — “definitely influenced” GSCC’s strategy, Brookes said. But ultimately, “we’re not using that playbook, because we’re telling the truth.”

Merchants of certainty 

GSCC was born out of PR trauma.

In November 2009, hacked emails from a server at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit started showing up on climate-skeptic blogs, where they fueled an uproar that became known as Climategate.

The emails, written by scientists who had no expectations they would ever be published, were easily misconstrued to make it look like the researchers were cooking the books to exaggerate certainty about man-made climate change.

Brookes had just joined the European Climate Foundation, a philanthropic institution set up the previous year to fund initiatives that would move the EU’s single market toward net-zero emissions.  

A former journalist and PR guru for Apple and Microsoft, Brookes said the early reports made “all my kind of PR flack guy hairs go off on the back of my neck, and I’m like, ‘Oh, that looks nasty. That’s not going to go well.’” 

“And it really didn’t,” he said.

A series of audits would later find no evidence that the researchers had committed scientific fraud, but the damage was done. Subsequent surveys in the U.S showed the affair “deepened and perhaps solidified” existing trends of climate skepticism, and tarnished trust in scientists more broadly. 

Worse, the scandal broke just weeks before a major climate summit in Copenhagen, contributing to the bad press as negotiators failed to secure a global pact to limit warming.

“The reason Copenhagen was considered as a failure is partly because it was interpreted as a failure by the outside world,” said the University of London’s Edouard Morena, whose research focuses on how philanthropy shapes the climate debate.

For Brookes and his compatriots, Climategate was a wake-up call.

Media coverage of climate change highlighted doubts that it was being caused by human behavior. This was partly fueled by covert PR carried out by fossil fuel companies terrified of the potential damage to their bottom line. 

In “Merchants of Doubt,” the historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway revealed how the fossil fuel industry bankrolled and promoted a murky network of think tanks, contrarian scientists and astroturf groups to call global warming into question. (In testimony before the U.S. Congress late last month, ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods and other executives denied spreading disinformation about climate change.)

The GSCC was set up to push an alternative — and more accurate — view: that rather than doubt, there was increasing consensus that climate change is really happening and that something needs to be done about it.

Originally conceived as a way to help European Climate Foundation grantees promote their work in the press, the network was spun off around 2013 into a separate global rapid response team for the broader array of green groups and researchers.

By the time of the next high profile climate summit — COP21 in Paris — the group was hitting its stride. And it did so just as public relations was becoming central to the fight against climate change.

The Paris agreement set a global goal to limit warming “to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.” There are some legally binding elements. But in reality, politics and strategic communications are at the core of enforcement.

Rather than depend solely on top-down prescriptions of what each government would do, the treaty set a goal and relies on a sense of competition among states and sectors to ratchet up commitments (at subsequent conferences like the one taking place in Glasgow) on how to make that actually happen. 

Countries and companies can get on board, or risk being seen as falling behind. 

At the Paris summit, GSCC used what Morena described as a “flotilla approach” to help drive the perception of a united front on the need for climate action. Behind the scenes, the network’s members led a “range of different actors who are quite visible in the climate debate to more or less push a narrative that is similar,” Morena said.  

Anonymity was key. “Everyone is not under a shared brand, but everyone is pushing their own brand in the same direction,” Morena said. If the lead warship is invisible, it looks like “all these little boats are, by themselves, going in the same direction.”

Indeed, if there’s been a turning point in the climate debate since Paris — from the rise of youth activists to climate change’s link with fires and floods — chances are the GSCC was there behind the scenes, turning up the volume.

After all, someone’s gotta check Greta Thunberg’s email. 

When the then-15-year-old Swedish climate activist burst onto the scene, she was inundated with media requests; GSCC offered help managing her inbox. They didn’t book her sailboat to travel carbon-neutrally across the Atlantic for a key climate conference in South America, but they set up the press conference in Plymouth to see her off.

More recently, when Thunberg hosted a roundtable of top newspaper editors at the Natural History Museum in London in the week ahead of COP26, the GSCC was helping with coordination.

Brookes insisted that his PR pros aren’t helping any of the media-savvy Gen Z stars with messaging. Thunberg, he said, “taught us more about communications than we’ve ever taught her.”

But climate scientists need more help. One of the network’s biggest accomplishments was promoting the IPCC’s 2018 report that made the case that even a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees will have catastrophic consequences — making a clear case that even the 2-degree limit set in Paris years earlier is woefully inadequate. 

The GSCC trained researchers behind the UN climate change agency’s report to deliver their conclusions in soundbites, managed its rollout and set up independent interviews and briefings around the globe. It’s PR basics, but on a scale that hadn’t been a priority for the IPCC in the past. The efforts helped drive a relatively uniform interpretation of the 630-page report.

Beyond “significant” short-term attention, the network’s strategy resulted “in coverage that has kept the report in the forefront of informing the climate conversation,” said Larry Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation, one of the GSCC’s primary funders.

‘The door to Narnia’

The GSCC’s emergence from the cold in the middle of the Glasgow talks definitely isn’t part of their grand strategy.

A POLITICO reporter more focused on COVID than climate overheard one side of a phone conversation on a Brussels bus in May. A secretive climate comms group, she heard, included dozens of PR professionals, many of them former journalists who in their 50s decided they wanted to “do something good.”

Indeed, the high proportion of former climate beat reporters in the GSCC’s ranks appears to help the group deliver finely-honed press releases and updates.

Some just dabble (and aren’t that old) — former POLITICO energy and climate reporter Sara Stefanini freelances for the effort. Others are integral.

Ed King, a former BBC producer who founded the news site Climate Home News in 2011, is the network’s international lead. (His Twitter bio: “Tracking international climate diplomacy since 2010” — no mention of GSCC).

Based in England, King has been the driving force behind the group’s COP26 prep, sending reporters quotes, political analysis and other raw materials that serve as building blocks for articles. Exhausted reporters in Glasgow trying to understand the confusing COP26 deliberations get King’s daily newsletter in their inbox each morning with a host of tips and story suggestions.

He’s also so quick to deliver direct quotes from closed-door meetings that some beat reporters are convinced he’s in the room — but it’s just his long-standing sourcing, both GSCC and U.K. government officials insist privately.

In Glasgow, the group has a large team on the ground, working the corridors and the media center and summarizing multiple negotiations tracks through a confidential online document shared with reporters. They are often seen huddling with U.K. officials as both the host government and civil society try to shape the narrative of the talks. 

GSCC’s first-week takeaways for reporters had two dueling themes: one pessimistic, the other more triumphant. On the one hand, the group stressed that while a series of incremental deals are moving the ball forward, the nitty-gritty doesn’t yet suggest we’ll achieve the 1.5-degree limit. 

On the other hand, it presented change as inevitable, offering reporters an embargoed version of a report from the consultancy Systemiq arguing the investment case for heavily polluting infrastructure is rapidly collapsing.

“It’s by far the best resource of intel at COPs that I knew of,” said one former environment beat reporter from Latin America, not authorized to speak publicly in their current position.

“It’s like the door to Narnia,” the former reporter said. “You don’t know it’s there unless you know it’s there.”

Brookes, the group’s CEO, said POLITICO’s inquiries had prompted a reckoning about the network’s secretive approach. 

“One of the interesting outcomes of this conversation has been to force us to actually think about this,” he said, promising to increase transparency. “We’ve been a bit shoddy on this front.”

Until last month, the GSCC’s website was a single static page for the “international network of communications professionals in the field of climate and energy,” with no individual staff listed, and an incomplete list of “network partners,” including the European Climate Foundation, and a generic email address as a contact. 

Days after Brookes spoke with POLITICO, the website was fleshed out. Brookes was listed as CEO, and some of the big philanthropies backing the effort were also disclosed: the Hewlett, Ikea, Oak, Grantham and KR foundations. (Brookes said GSCC is honoring requests by some other donors for anonymity.)

The group’s structure is complicated, and often shifting, Brookes said. Their network includes about 100 people, but a precise number is hard to pin down, with people dipping in for different projects. The more overtly operated Climate Nexus is GSCC’s partner in the U.S., and other groups like ClimaInfo play a role in Latin America.

The GSCC is “fiscally sponsored,” but not bankrolled, by the European Climate Foundation. The two groups use the same number in the EU’s transparency register, an effort to keep track of lobbying in Brussels, but they’re separate entities, Brookes said. Indeed, there’s no mention of the GSCC on the European Climate Foundation’s website or in recent annual reports posted online.

Additionally, the UN Foundation (an organization founded by U.S. media mogul Ted Turner) is also an operational partner, providing labor, not cash — they have a memo of understanding with the GSCC for the IPCC work, Brookes said.

The GSCC’s unbranded approach “puts the focus solely on building a better future,” said the Oak Foundation — one of their backers — in a statement. 

The legacy of the Climategate attacks by opponents of green changes was also a factor in keeping a low profile, Brookes acknowledged.

“It’s a big machine. And when it’s focused only on you, it’s hard work,” he said. “There was a level of fear, back at that point, of drawing that fire.”

Making a difference?

If dodging that fire was the goal, it’s worked. The head of the Heartland Institute, a U.S. think tank known for producing climate-skeptic research (and digging into the funding structures of green groups), initially agreed to speak to POLITICO about the GSCC last month, but stopped responding before setting an appointment. The Institute of Economic Affairs, a free-market think tank in the U.K., likewise was not able to deliver an expert with relevant knowledge.

But some of those in the know do have misgivings. 

The unvarnished, scientific truth is that society needs to make drastic changes immediately to avert disaster, said Rutgers University’s Melissa Aronczyk, co-author of the forthcoming book “A Strategic Nature: Public Relations and the Politics of American Environmentalism.” 

Aronczyk questioned whether the GSCC and its allies are “actually helping people to come to grips with the existential crisis that we’re in.” By boosting lots of different climate players and incremental solutions, she said, “they get so focused on the messaging that they leave out the transformation part.”

Then there are concerns about who the GSCC has ignored as it highlights the consensus.

In the bid to convey a message of unity in Paris, some voices were left out. That included, according to Morena, elements of the so-called climate justice movement, who want more emphasis on the already vulnerable groups that are hit harder by climate change. Some of those he interviewed were “very unhappy with the way in which they were also being marginalized through efforts such as the GSCC.” 

While “it was certainly never a conscious decision” to leave them out, Brookes said this has become a more central focus in recent years.

Others cast doubt on the group’s effectiveness.

The network may borrow from the tactics of Big Oil, but it can’t match its spending power. GSCC’s budget, between €15 million and €20 million a year, is dwarfed by industry’s. ExxonMobil, alone, has a staff of at least 500 in its PR office, said Robert J. Brulle, a visiting professor of environment and society at Brown University — and that doesn’t include hundreds of millions spent on contracts with outside firms.

That’s created “a significantly distorted public space,” said Brulle.

“Maybe GSCC has leveled the field some,” he said. “But we’re still not acting on climate change. How much of a win can they claim?”   

That the tone of climate journalism has changed since the GSCC’s inception is beyond question. Less clear is the network’s role in bringing about that change: When the news is compelling — Thunberg’s fiery speeches or Germany’s flooding towns — how much credit should the comms team get for changing the public perceptions? 

“I think the network has made a difference on the science,” Brookes said. 

“For a long time, we weren’t having a conversation about how we’re going to do it,” Brookes said. “We were having a conversation about whether or not we needed to do it … In that time, a huge amount more carbon dioxide got put in the atmosphere.”

Now, he said, “climate science is no longer contested in a significant way.”

Karl Mathiesen contributed reporting from Glasgow. In a previous job, Mathiesen received reporting grants from the GSCC and European Climate Foundation. King was his editor at Climate Home News for four months in 2016.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Energy and Climate. From climate change, emissions targets, alternative fuels and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the Energy and Climate policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.

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